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How to Tell a Story with Market Research Data

The insights offered by neuroscience have taken the research world by storm and companies have developed both neuro- marketing and neuroscience research to implement a new way of thinking. As business professionals, our lives often involve one or more research reports every week, if not every day, providing an onslaught of facts and insights. Most of us have experienced the fatigue and boredom brought about by too many facts and too little learning. So, how can we implement what we learn from neuroscience to deliver effective market research reporting and communication of information and insights?

The Importance of Storytelling

The most critical ingredient of effective market research reporting comes in the shape of stories. Storytelling is rarely given the attention it deserves. If research is both art and science, we need to blow the dust off the art elements including writing, presenting, persuading, visual arts, theatrical arts, and the art of storytelling.

For the last few decades, with the dramatic increase of data and information availability, the users of information frequently find themselves in a tough place to make any meaningful conclusions. Especially in the marketing research industry, the research buyers have been identifying the lack of “a story” in the delivered reports by research suppliers. The users of research cry that they do not want just scores and statistics, rather they want a story that tells “what happened” or “why is that important” based on those scores and statistics.

Telling Stories in Reporting

It is necessary to use a set of principles to find insights and then outline steps to successful communication of market research results to business end-users. Consider this method:

  1. Understanding: Context is everything. Before designing a research study, it is critical to understand the business’s objectives, current environment and situation, pain points, the stakeholders’ interests, and the use of information. Researchers gather context about the business and the research needs through the clients, their organization, and other outside sources before planning and designing the study.
  2. Planning: Design a research study with the “end in mind” and look at the process from the end to the beginning. First, focus on the business objectives, then design the way to deliver the information to meet those objectives, then design the analytic plan to provide this information, and finally design the survey instrument and the sampling frame to collect the data to be analyzed.
  3. Discovery: When the data is collected, an essential step is to review the data and discover the story hidden in it. It is a common failure of many market research studies that the researchers deliver a long report of results from the study, basically a dump of information, question by question, without focusing on a story to answer the specific research and business objectives. Instead, a discovery phase needs to occur, where the data is reduced to a coherent story that will answer businesses’ research questions.
  4. Communication: Finally, now that the data is reduced to a story, how do you tell that story in the most effective way? This is the last and most important element of delivering research results, as only effective communication of results will accomplish the goal of meeting the business’s research objectives.

There are many ways of making the communication of research story effective, but we will focus on three of those ways here to share some best practices we implement for effective business reporting: Use of visuals, colors, and dashboards.

Use Graphics and Charts

In research reporting, visual components are the centerpiece. A busy reader will often flip through and look at the main diagrams and charts in a report, much the same way that someone flips through a magazine or newspaper and looks at the pictures (and maybe reads the captions). To get your point across in a report, make sure that the visuals are conveying the point—don’t hide your conclusions in the accompanying text. Moreover, neuroscience tells us that recall is also better when accompanied by visual elements—something to which the reader can attach ideas.

Visuals in research reporting are generally either “graphics” or “charts.” Generally, charts visually plot the size of data, while graphics show the relationship between concepts/objects or the ow in a process. This distinction matters because graphics are useful for helping show the structure of the story we are telling, while charts are useful for clearly showing the evidence that backs our story. We utilize these graphics to tell a clear and concise story. Graphics “show” in one complete picture these connections, whether it is a chronological order, a cause-and- effect relationship, or an organizational structure, in a simple pictorial way, making it easier to comprehend and recall. While graphics narrate the story and provide a way to visualize the story, charts fill in the details and support the points we are making.

The traditional style of research reporting often fails to engage the attention and therefore the brain of the reader, resulting
in a lack of processing, memory and recall. There are ways to combat this problem, using editing and data density.

  • Editing refers to the process of cutting distracting content. Review the chart for repetition, for non-results, for unnecessary text that does not provide additional information, and for relevance to the main objectives. The editing step reduces long, repetitive charts.
  • Data Density refers to the quantity of data points that are shown in a given space. Instead of using repetitive charts to display multiple data series, we can use the idea of data density by combining multiple series on the same chart to improve the flow and interpretive richness of the report. When data elements are far apart in the report, insights can be missed. The human eye and mind are more adept at noticing patterns than we give it credit for, so dense data displays play to this strength of the brain and keeps it engaged.

An important step in creating better charts is focusing on the key elements and deleting the rest so as not to clutter the charts. Another way to increase data density is through interactivity. Interactivity means allowing the user (either a reader or a presenter) to interact with the data by making choices about what they want to see.

Convey the Story Quickly and Accurately

With increased amount of information available through various sources, it has become a major challenge for marketing research professionals to reduce the vast amount of data into meaningful messages for audiences. Many audiences find themselves flooded with just ‘data’ and ‘information’, overwhelmed with statistics and facts, and left without true insights that should inform marketing and strategic decisions. To overcome this challenge, the key is to tell a story from the data. A coherent and clear story that is relatable to the audience will be more successful in capturing the audience’s attention, and will succeed in communicating the message by creating curiosity in the audience’s mind and engaging them in thinking.

Use of visuals is critical in presenting a successful story, but visuals need to be selected and constructed carefully to create the best effect on the audience. Editing and data density are key ways to improve the readability and effectiveness of reports. Interactivity uses the reader’s working memory to help them see localized patterns in the data. These tools together make the evidence provided by the charts more powerful and relevant to the story. Understanding how people perceive and compare shapes in charts allows us to construct visuals that accurately and quickly convey the story.